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Fall Sneaks

Brother, What a Switch

Forget Tim Blake Nelson, lovable hillbilly. His new film tackles humankind's darkest hour.

September 08, 2002|LYNN SMITH

Before shooting "The Grey Zone," the film version of his own dark Holocaust play, director Tim Blake Nelson handed out a required reading list to actors David Arquette, Harvey Keitel, Steve Buscemi and Mira Sorvino, among others.

First, there was Primo Levi's essay of the same name about the Sonderkommando--Auschwitz-Birkenau prisoners forced to choose between helping the Nazis or death. There were diaries unearthed at Birkenau, packets of testimony from concentration camp survivors, and a 25-page, single-spaced memo from Nelson detailing the authentic, unsentimental tone he hoped to achieve with his story about an ill-fated 1944 uprising of the Sonderkommando.

This, then, is the other Tim Blake Nelson. Not the hilarious, gap-toothed actor-singer known for his convincing portrayals of Delmar, the dim-bulb hillbilly in "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" and Bubba, the frustratingly likable pot-smoking schemer in "The Good Girl," but the serious, erudite and self-aware Nelson, the precariously eclectic writer-director of "Eye of God," a Sundance favorite about faith and love; "O," the preppy adaptation of Othello; and now "The Grey Zone," opening Oct. 11, a labor of love even its backers knew would be commercially hopeless.

Having shed his Hollywood outsider status, Nelson is now poised on the edge of what he calls an insider trap. "I know I don't want to be involved in cookie-cutter movies," he said. So far, he said, he's been lucky as an actor that interesting movies have chosen him. As a director, he said, "I want to direct films that I can't live without shooting. It's that simple."

Like a number of other Hollywood insider-outsiders such as actor-turned-writer Mike White ("Chuck & Buck"), or actor-directors Tim Roth ("The War Zone") and Tim Robbins ("Dead Man Walking"), Nelson seems drawn to darker, edgier material in his own films while he works as an actor on more mainstream material.

Poolside at the low-key Avalon Hotel in Beverly Hills, the modishly stubbled Nelson sipped espresso for breakfast. He kissed his pregnant wife, actress Lisa Benavides, goodbye and shielded himself from the morning sun. At 38, he's a slight 5 feet 6, an intense yet unneurotic New Yorker born and raised in Tulsa, Okla., and educated in the classics and drama at Brown University and Juilliard Theater Center. His voice projects education, sincerity and sly wit.

It's funny, he said, how people compliment him these days on his taste in movie projects. "I think I do have taste, but my career is no manifestation of that. It's a manifestation of a lot of fortunate rejections which were heartbreaking at the time. For most of the 1990s, before Joel Coen called and asked me to do 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?,' I was begging to be in any movie that would have me. I can't tell you the level of disappointment I experienced when I was not offered the role of one of the Ferengi in "Star Trek: Voyager.' "

He realized as a student that he would have to branch out from acting to get work. "Quite frankly, if you look like me," he said, "it's downright essential." Nelson said teachers told him, "You're short. You're odd-looking. And it's just going to be difficult." Not wanting to sit around waiting for the phone to ring, Nelson started writing and directing plays for his classmates.

Nelson's friends know him as a book-smart and street-smart intellectual who is prone to using Latin-based words that sometimes baffle them. So it's ironic that his most enduring characters have been inarticulate simpletons and nerds.

Explaining how an intellectual plays a nitwit, Nelson said it's an actor's job to take seriously the outrageous or funny predicaments in which his character finds himself. He said he decided to make Delmar "innocent of knowledge. To me, that felt like a positive choice. When knowledge did come to him, it was a wonderful or a dangerous or a saddening surprise. All that's positive. It allows you never to condescend to the character, which is the pitfall of any role, particularly in a comedy."

This year, Nelson has appeared in Steven Spielberg's "Minority Report" and will star in director Andrew Davis' film adaptation of the popular teen novel "Holes." To his former teachers' undoubted shock, he has even landed romantic leads in "A Foreign Affair," a comedy about two brothers (Nelson and David Arquette) who travel to Russia to find traditional wives, and Finn Taylor's "Cherish," a music-filled comedy released earlier this year to mixed reviews about a young woman under house arrest who falls for her nerdy parole officer (Nelson).

Nelson, a product of both the Sundance writers and directors labs in 1996, said that wise and generous mentors have appeared at crucial junctures in his career. He said he's learned something from every director he's worked with, from Terrence Malick (Nelson had a small role in "The Thin Red Line") to Spielberg, Coen and Taylor. Coen offered advice when he ran into trouble shooting and cutting "The Grey Zone," Nelson said.

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